Thursday, December 9, 2010

Shallow But Fun: iPhone Game Round-up

For the last month or so, I've played more video games on my iPhone than any of my dedicated gaming machines (though 'Splosion Man threatens to make that statement untrue).

Realizing this was surprising, to say the least. Despite some successful forays into iPhone gaming, my general opinion of the platform has been that it's a great place to play video games if you're really into touchscreen versions of decades-old Game Boy games.

That assumption is, perhaps, out of date. Like Rob before me, I'm finding plenty of games that come pretty close to scratching my Gamer's Itch. Nothing here can replace my DS or my Xbox in the long run, but not everything needs to be a groundbreaking cinematic experience that perfectly summarizes the case for Games As Art.

Also, you can buy everything I talk about today for $5. Total.

Angry Birds

Yup, everyone with a phone that plays games has heard of Clickgamer and Rovio's Angry Birds. Everyone. If you tell me you haven't, you're obviously lying. That the game has been massively successful is not up for debate - in addition to Halloween and holiday-themed versions of the game, there have also been plush figures and cosplay and stuff.

Like most superpopular iPhone games, this one takes a simple hook and reiterates it into infinity: you have enemies. They are perched atop (or beside, or under, or whatever) a precariously balanced structure, which you must knock over using the strategic firing of projectiles.

There's a story implied here, I guess. Your projectiles are the eponymous angry birds, and they're angry because some green pig-head things stole their eggs. Instead of simply laying more eggs, the birds decide to get all kamikaze and exterminate the evil pig-heads. It's really not important. The point is that you use physics to knock shit over.

There are five different kinds of projectile bird at your disposal, each good at doing a specific thing or breaking through a specific type of material (the structures in the game can be made of wood, glass, stone, or various bric-a-brac). Clearing each level is relatively easy - the timewasting really begins when you start trying to max out your scores in each level. If we could just get people to be as enthusiastic about curing cancer as about getting three stars in every level of Angry Birds, we'd have the problem licked.

Unless you're in the habit of buying things off the McDonald's dollar menu, you're unlikely to swear this much about anything you spend a dollar on.


Matt Rix's Trainyard hasn't achieved quite the mass-market success of Angry Birds, but I think its clean lines and low-key vibe are more appealing in the end.

The object of the game is simply to get a train from point A to point B via a track you draw with your finger. See below:

Okay, cool. Except soon, you have to augur multiple trains into their stations, and the color of the train has to match the color of the station, and the tracks can overlap and switch, and trains that cross paths can combine into one train or make each other a different color, and sometimes special tiles on your map paint your trains different colors or split them in half, and pretty soon you're stuck trying to figure this out:

It's just about enough to drive someone crazy, all for just $2.99. 

Cut the Rope

The last game on my docket for today is also the most adorable: Chillingo's Cut the Rope asks you to feed hard candy to a tiny green monster with gigantic, expressive eyes. You'll use many different tools to get the candy from its starting point to the monster's mouth, you'll do it mostly by cutting ropes. Oh and also if you could use your candy to pick up three stars along the way that would be awesome because they're worth a bunch of points and they unlock more levels for you.

Where Angry Birds completionists must sever all personal and professional ties to the outside world in the pursuit of the mighty High Score, Cut the Rope takes a less difficult but ultimately less frustrating tack. Picking up all three stars in every level of Cut the Rope is eminently doable for a sane casual player, and indeed picking up the three stars is often the easiest, best, and/or most logical way to clear a level in the first place. It gradually ramps up the difficulty without ever throwing up a wall in front of the player, which in turn encourages the player to spend more time with the game.

Like the other games we've looked at today, Cut the Rope will set you back a mere ninety-nine cents, and the developers promise that more levels will be provided via free App Store updates.

Wrapping Up

I'd argue that players who want real depth in narrative or gameplay are still best served by a dedicated gaming system, whether it sits under your TV or comes with you in your bag. For the times when you've only got a few minutes (or limited pocket space, or whatever), though, there's a surprisingly good selection of well-supported addictive games out there for your shiny little MP3 player.